I: Future Trash
Last night I dreamt we were all gonna die. The rich ones, the poor ones, were all gonna die. The white ones, the black ones were all gonna die. The old ones, the young ones were all gonna die. We were walked down to a small lake or a pond at dusk. We were told to lie down. Some put their feet in the muddy water, but I did not, as I didn’t want death to come from the water. It was getting dark, but we could still see. Our assassins were young and beautiful, like rock stars. They were not cruel, nor out to torture us. They took no pleasure in their task, but they showed no mercy. My assassin looked like St. Vincent. I looked at her and I knew she was mine. We were told to close our eyes, that we would know when it was our turn, by a poke or a prod. Next to me lay a young girl, a child of nine or ten. She was curled up against me in fetal position, her shins nestled against my ribcage. When it was her turn to go, our assassin asked me if I wanted to kiss her goodbye, as we were companions. I could not open my eyes to look at her face —but I kissed her legs and her knees, the bones of her feet and the flesh of her calves, knowing it would soon be gone.
I woke up with a song in my heart. It was Antony Hegarty singing: “It will grow back like a starfish. It will grow back like a starfish. It will grow back like a starfish. It will grow back like a starfish.” But now that I am fully awake, I am not so sure.1
I play that song, when I come home from my morning errands, with my bag full of vitamin D supplements from Walgreens. Sunshine in a bottle. I open my laptop and start typing. My nails have grown but I don’t feel older, nor the wiser for it. I empty my email inbox: there is a sale on at Barney’s again. An extra 70% off all clearance items. I listen to Antony’s sorrowful voice while I scroll through page after page after page of luxury goods in the sale — it is something I do obsessively and often, but listening to Antony and the Johnsons makes it more enjoyable. A patchwork skirt in gold Nappa leather with crotchet accents from Derek Lam is priced down from $3999 to $300; it is so cheap they might as well be throwing it away. And maybe they will, if I don’t buy it? It is all future trash anyway. But $300 is still $300, and when will I ever get to wear it? I have done worse in the past, admittedly.
I flip through a Facebook friend’s photo album, as I like to do sometimes. This is one of my favorites, because she is one of my most photogenic friends and also leads a life that matches her glamorous name: Abigail DeVille.
One picture shows her in front of her own sculpture at her own opening at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The piece is assembled from various shades of blue plastic tarps, tied or stuck together with masking tape, and cascades from high on the wall behind her –propped up on box-spring mattresses and cinderblock pylons—down toward the floor. Red and black shopping carts and trolleys float by on this deluge, their wheels sticking out at awkward angles, as if being washed away by a tsunami. Abigail poses before it, as one would in front of the Niagara Falls or, I imagine, one will in the future when the apocalypse comes washing away all our trolleys, trucks and Target stores.
She looks lovely as a whoop-de-whoopsy daisy; a back-to-the-future homecoming queen or a background vocalist for Prince, but in a celebrity style battle I would most like to see this moonage-daydream-believer opposite Tina Turner in Mad Max. Like a Sister Outsider to TT’s Aunty Entity, she is here to remind us:
We don’t need another hero
We don’t need to know the way home
All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome2
As described by Donna Haraway in her Cyborg Manifesto:
Sister Outsider hints at the possibility of world survival, not because of her innocence, but because of her ability to live on the boundaries, to write without the founding myth of original wholeness, with its inescapable apocalypse of final return to a deathly oneness […].3
Through the poetry of everyday experience and American history I create black hole room-sized sculptures that speak to different strands in American society’s material culture. Black holes are containers that are laden with forgotten information, the absence of light, power, knowledge and the harbinger of historical inaccuracies. I use celestial forms to think about our place in history, that links us to the beginning of time. Garbage contains the material history of the present and links to the past.
In 2014 Abigail DeVille drove a U-Haul van from Washington DC to Florida, following the trail of the Seaboard Air Line Railway. Between 1900 and 1967 this was one of the most popular routes of the “great migration,” an often overlooked event in recent American history; the exodus of over 6 million black Americans, fleeing the social and economic injustice of the Jim Crow South in search of liberty and justice for all in the North. This movement led to the establishment of black communities and cultural centers in the booming metropolises of among others Chicago, Detroit, Washington DC and most famously the “Harlem Renaissance.”
This trip was also her own first visit through the southern United States, and infused her intellectual knowledge of historical events with a tangible material and embodied knowing. Much like a road movie in reverse, the aim of Abigail’s journey was to scavenge a pile of the junk left by the wayside by travellers over the years. The collected debris was used for an installation and parade of “wearable sculptures” commissioned by curator Justine Topfer, for the citywide art exhibition 5×5 in Washington D.C.
“The New Migration,” as the piece was titled, was spread across two vacant lots in the 8th ward neighborhood Anacostia as an homage to the African American diaspora of the neighborhood and the city. It acknowledges the fact that each and every city in America has a connection with migration stories (voluntary as well as involuntary) –while also pointing to the current retrograde “great migration” of the less privileged, in the wake of gentrification of this type of neighborhood. While the piece aimed to commemorate their collective movement, it also connected this moment in time to a greater historical moment and, in turn, related that specific historical moment with a greater infinity.
It was a loving gesture, but it wasn’t read as such.
Residents of the neighborhood protested against the work, installed in an abandoned storefront and visible from the street. The offense taken was based on perceived insensitivity toward the neighborhood’s recent past. As one resident asked: “Why do they want to make Ward 8 look like a more poor-ass neighborhood?”
Or as advisory neighborhood commissioner Greta Fuller told Washington City Paper in their coverage of the controversy:
People don’t understand why that kind of art is out there when we already have so many blighted buildings […] Everyone is kind of confused. It doesn’t represent any growth or change.4
But, perhaps the hurt and confusion also stems from the possibility, which DeVille’s project entertains: namely that change and development is not always linear and irreversible and that growth is not always benign.
As such DeVille’s installation works don’t add to a given space as much as unveil the trauma and richness of history already present at the site. While reminding us that this history, our cultural heritage, is really just a thin layer wrought from and covering the ancient soil underneath, we can only –personally and collectively—escape for so long, they also open us up to the possibility that our return does not have to be to an innocuous Eden, nor an apocalyptic oneness. In her accentuation of the negatives of the black hole –its absence of the traditional enlightenment values of light, power, knowledge—as its positivity, she also opens up Sister Outsider’s toolbox, which allows us the rewrite our place in history and our links to the beginning of time:
The tools are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities. In retelling origin stories, cyborg authors subvert the central myths of origin of western culture. We have all been colonized by those origin myths, with their longing for fulfillment in apocalypse.5
Abigail deVille’s relationship with trash, and the history and information it carries, is not one of antagonism and opposition, but of continuous flow and eternal return.
To paraphrase Haraway: The luxurious trash that makes up our material world is not an it to be animated, worshiped or dominated. The trash is us, our process, an aspect of our embodiment. Or, to quote Abigail: “If we scratch long enough on the surface of this material world, it may become a portal to another dimension.”
II: Present Trash
A few weeks ago a historic 7.8 magnitude earthquake shattered Katmandu, killing thousands of people and reducing historic landmarks and ancient temples to rubble. That rubble, infused with the memory of generations upon generations, triggers a yearning pain that cannot be redeemed by all the paintings in the world. Perhaps to paint is exactly the only response that makes sense.
In Rajee Aryal’s studio in Chicago, handsome canvasses hang neatly on crisp white walls. None of the usual “creative chaos” greets me when she slides open the heavy metal door. In a similarly tidy way the paintings contain filled-in grids, with evenly executed marks. Aryal’s experience as a computer programmer reveals itself in the way she transfers photographic images to canvas using a paint-by number algorithm, whereby each hue has a corresponding sign – like a capital A, E, or I, or X – that she translates back character by character using pastel colored paint markers, resulting in etheric images that seem to float, like a landscape observed through a chain-link fence, right behind or in front of the picture plane. A mirage.
But don’t be fooled –this is an artist who introduced herself to fellow painting seminar classmates with the following quote: “All funerals are sad and creepy but they are way better than feeding the corpse to a bunch of hungry eagles.”
With this in mind I let my hungry eye hover over the paintings, feasting on aerial views of garbage belts and plastic-littered rivers from Aryal’s homeland of Nepal. No longer cool and distant, the etheric images now seem hot and humid–as seen through the fog, smog or saturated vapor of a hazy tropical morning. Although images of garbage should perhaps provoke repulsion, these first and foremost trigger a yearning; this trash in its many-splendored glory cannot be touched, felt, or least of all smelled.
This is not the river in a whirl of gray darting mudfish up the rice paddies I once watched everyday to grow. These are not the delicate hues of unearthed coal hiding once the blemishes of potatoes at the market place. There is no stench of never rotting with eggshells and buffalo bones here. Nor the skins of once imported foods flying gaily in the cold haze of the afternoon sun before wafting, unlike Icarus, into the wet forever. No rhythm nor rest. A trickle and soon mirages. A call to arms already resigned. Gamut and ghost.6
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus stated “you can never bathe in the same river twice.” Yet, Aryal seems oblivious to this advice as she keeps revisiting the banks of embedded memory in a series of paintings with titles such as:
Colors in a River
Colors in a River, Written
Colors in a River, X-ed out
Patterns and Letters in Colors in a River
Section of Colors in a River, in English Alphabet
Rajee immerses herself repeatedly into this river of trash as if to trigger some total recall, reversing the trajectory from gamut to ghost, pulling aside the frosted plastic shower curtain of the forever now to allow a glimpse into the wet forever.
Through the grid of the tall studio windows—typical of American turn-of-the-so-last-century industrial warehouse architecture—downtown Chicago glitters and glows in the distance. Across fields of parking lots, highways, and the low-rise of Pilsen, the gridded regularity of sinister mid-century monoliths like the Willis (“the Sears” to most Chicagoans) and Hancock Towers resonate with the painted patterns in the studio and the whole city resembles an enchanting pile of trash.
Rajee calls one of these towers her home and that makes a lot of sense to me. I imagine her standing by her picture window humming along with Joanna Newsom:
Hey hey hey the end is near
On a good day you can see the end from here
But I won’t turn back now though the way is clear
I will stay for the remainder7
Art is what humans make in the face of disaster, whether natural or man made. Perhaps we no longer even need to differentiate between natural disaster and man made disaster –since human nature is nature too –and they both work the same way: rolling back the civilization blanketing the earth, to uncovering the trash and the rubble that was brushed underneath. But we will stay, and paint, for the remainder. The call of culture is human nature.
As if to answer that call Aryal is looking over toward her studio, across the cityscape of commuters and consumers, conversationalists and conservationists, each leaving their own trail of trash as they go about their day, settling into evening, into night—before looking down:
on the edge of a change so massive that we have no way of gauging it. None of us knows where to look, but all of us know not to look down. Secretly, we all think we are doomed: even the politicians think this; even the environmentalists. Some of us deal with it by going shopping. Some deal with it by hoping it is true. Some give up in despair. Some work frantically to try and fend off the coming storm.
Our question is: what would happen if we looked down? Would it be as bad as we imagine? What might we see? Could it even be good for us?
We believe it is time to look down.8
III: Past Trash
From my plane I look down at the skyline of Chicago as we descend into the sunset. The last glimpse I caught of Florence was of IKEA, from the air. The handbags in the markets were made in Italy, China. In the Ufizzi “La Primavera” was sheltered behind glass, as if the tourist gaze alone will scorch her skin—and if not, the flashing of a million cameras will do it. Is this what uncivilization feels like, or is it just more of the same old-same old civilization? Time doesn’t wait for anyone. On my layover I hustled through the duty free to purchase a hairy Beanie Boo for my daughter. She and I share a passion; we trawl our local Barnes & Nobles for new species and ogle collectables on eBay. Their kaleidoscope eyes mesmerize us with their hypnotic rainbow twinkle: Buy me!
One day last summer we took our plush zoo on a visit to Assaf Evron’s studio. Since his beginnings as a documentary photographer for a leftist Israeli paper, Assaf’s practice evolved into an oeuvre of conceptual and abstracted photography and sculpture in which the relationships between image and form, figure and ground, merge and morph discreetly and discretely.
One photograph shows a single unit of wall, standing solitary by the wayside in a barren desert landscape. The image was gently photo-shopped to render the bricks in dusty pastels, tastefully matching the sky and the landscape in the background. With its “camouflaged” desert design it resembles the wall dividing Israel from the Gaza strip. Only–being a prototype or a reject from the production of highway modules—this wall does not divide anything. Assaf’s subtle intervention is therefore more an aloof, aesthetic gesture, than heavy-handed political commentary–except in this case those two can no longer be detangled. When first encountering the image, in the show “The Chicago Effect: Redefining the Middle,” at Hyde Park Art Center in fall 2014, I had readily accepted the camouflage as already existing out there in the world; a mildly offensive, but also understandable attempt at “prettifying” the symbol of a conflict so old and conflicted it has all but become the status quo, and in essence perhaps not much different from the graffiti seen on Berlin or Belfast walls. Only difference here is that this is done in the best possible taste –with no gesture of anger, rebellion or even hope – and therefore all the more aggressive. It exudes a repressive tolerance, which Assaf mockingly epitomizes in the catchphrase: “The occupation never looked so good!”
His statement in no way endorses the oil-fueled war, but rather nods to how readily this divisions between “us” and “them,” lends itself as corporate backdrop for the vicious step and repeat of war and oppression. Thus the trashy monolith captured in Assaf’s images is figure and ground, backdrop and actor both.
In the photograph the cinder blocks appear roughly the size of the LEGO blocks my daughter uses to build malls and dwellings for her little friends – but mostly littering her room, in turn resembling a pastel colored warzone or landfill. Archeologists have long studied the trash left behind by once burgeoning civilizations and perhaps it is our pastel colored rubble that will reveal most about ours when the time comes?
On this late summer’s morning the casually arranged works in progress most resemble the props of some Divine Comedy. MDF pyramid stubs and prefab stair units from Home Depot mimic the spolia of once feared and mighty empires—ancient Aztec temple architecture and German Interbellum Gesamtkunstwerk stage design, to name but two examples—and form the perfect backdrop for a Beanie Boo family portrait:
As we have well and truly entered the anthropocene era and its associated ecocide and defaunation, these cuddly substitutes are replacing endangered species, one cub, kitty, and turtle at the time until we will leave behind a perhaps not more beautiful but definitely more plush and cute planet, millions of sparkly eyes glowing and twinkling as the sun sets on the giant pastel colored trash vortex of civilization.
Like frozen water, Beanie Boo’s –along with all our other plastic products—are just oil, liquid sunshine, in its solid state and will once settle back into the sediment of their origin. The question is: who will be around to witness it?
Coda: Future Perfect Trash
In his poem “the Peacock Feather” from 1922, my literary hero (because contrary to what Tina Turner may say we still need literary heroes) Tom Kristensen, describes how, while traveling in China, he finds a peacock feather on a compost heap.
To Kristensen its “eye” presents like a spark in a tumbling void and so heavy as to bend the feather when he picks it up. Before his own eyes it unfurls in a dazzling blue stare, calling him to search for a soul in every gaze he meets and to sing of what he does not understand.
Cyborgs dream of electric sheep, but they also dream the impossible dream: that we can somehow become one with the man-machine and dodge the bullet of our impending doom, like Keanu Reeves’ character in The Matrix. De Ville, Evron and Aryal each offer us a glimpse of truth and reconciliation with our past, present and future through the connective tissue that is our trash. An eternity into which we must look down. As is written in the Dark Mountain Project’s Eight Principles of Uncivilisation—
The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.9
I imagine a future poet, traversing a landfill of continental expanse, eye to kaleidoscope eye with the last Beanie Boo in the world. If we stare long and hard enough into the abyss of trash that we have made it will stare back into us, and that –after all—is maybe not such a bad thing. Perhaps we can begin a new romance with trash by considering what is invested, and whose is the agency in this folie à deux?
- Antony and the Johnsons: “Cripple And The Starfish” from Antony And The Johnsons, Secretly Canadian, 1998
- Tina Turner: “We Don’t Need Another Hero” from the motion picture soundtrack Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Capitol Records: 1985.
- Donna Haraway: “A Cyborg Manifesto” in The Cybercultures Reader, ed. David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy (New York: Routledge, 2000), 312.
- “Perry Stein: Why Anacostia Residents Are Calling 311 Over This Art Installation”, Washington City Paper, 10 September 2014: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/artsdesk/visual-arts/2014/09/10/why-anacostia-residents-are-calling-311-over-this-art-installation/ (accessed 17 January 2015)
- Haraway: “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 311
- Rajee Aryal: Artist’s statement, Chicago 2014
- Joanna Newsom: “On a Good Day,” from Have One On Me. Drag City: 2010.
- Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine: Uncivilization: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, Oxford 2009: http://dark-mountain.net/about/manifesto/